Maj. Gen. Marcia Anderson knows a thing or two about leadership and diversity in the Army. And so she should, as the most senior-ranking black woman—a badge she has worn since 2011, when she became the first black, female two-star general.
Being in the position that she is in, and knowing what she knows, Anderson is determined to see the military become more reflective of American society—rich, diverse and inclusive in a healthy way—starting with bumping up the representation of women, who account for only about 15 percent of the whole Army.
"If you're not seated at the table, you are on the menu," Anderson—most recently honored this year at Spelman College's Leadership and Women of Color Conference—told a group of reporters Tuesday on a conference call during which she spoke about the importance of a diverse military and overall culture. "You have to have a lot of different people involved in discussions if we want to improve our organizations."
One example she pointed to is the Army's most recent conundrum regarding Army Regulation 670-1, the grooming standards that came under intense scrutiny from the community. They were said to be unaccommodating to black women with natural hair because they banned certain hairstyles, such as twists, dreadlocks, Afros and braids more than a quarter-inch thick, calling them "unauthorized."
Anderson had a personal claim to this issue. Her own hair had begun to fall out years before because of her penchant for relaxers, and she had to go through steroid treatment to help resolve it.
"I decided to personally involve myself in this particular issue," she said. She went to a senior personnel officer with her own story, recommending that the Army consult hair-and-scalp specialists.
"He took that to heart, a group was convened, they met with a hair-and-scalp specialist who explained some things, and there were some changes in the works—as a consequence of all of this—to update the regulations to reflect a more inclusive approach to grooming while still making sure that soldiers presented the American people [with] a very professional appearance," Anderson added.
It was incredible awareness of how important she was as a black soldier and a female soldier that turned an inadvertent Army Reserve career into a 35-year legacy.
About eight or nine years after "accidentally" joining the military through the Reserve Officers' Training Corps while trying to fulfill a science-credit requirement for Creighton University, Anderson was grappling with whether or not she wanted to stay. One day, while walking with two senior male officers, about six female soldiers marched by in a formation, going about their duties.
It … made me more determined to stay, to do a good job, to make sure that my ethics were above reproach. Because in being the first, there’s always a danger that you could be the last.
"They caught sight of me and their faces just lit up. And they saluted me as if those two guys were not there, and so I saluted them and they moved on," Anderson recalled, chuckling. "As we walked a few more steps further, one of the officers said, 'Well, I guess we're just chopped liver.' I said, 'Yes, sir, I guess you are.'
"They were excited to see me, and I realized then that I needed to stay because I needed to motivate more young women to follow the same course," she added. "It … made me more determined to stay, to do a good job, to make sure that my ethics were above reproach. Because in being the first, there's always a danger that you could be the last."
So what does she recommend, and what is the Army already doing to curb this unequal representation and unequal treatment of women? Opening up more combat positions, which typically set a certain career track that ends up leading to high-ranking positions, is a good start.
"If you look at major corporations, a lot of people who rise to senior leadership position … they're not in what we'd call the 'soft skill areas,' such as human resources. They'll be in marketing or [they'll be] engineers," she reasoned. "So the same is true for the military. Our parallel will be combat."
Of course, mentorship and encouragement are equally important in helping to bring about the "critical mass" needed to force cultural change.
"I'm a great believer that we need critical mass. If we stay at 15 percent, the institution and the culture will not be impacted and will not change," Anderson said. "I'd like to see the Army someday at 40 percent [women] or 50 percent."
"Once people are exposed to different kinds of leaders, I think that's going to inform their thinking and their behavior. … Once it becomes a norm, you don't even think about it anymore. It's just simply, 'Is this person a good leader, is this someone I want to follow, is this someone who exhibits the kind of values that I want to embrace?' and 'Is this the kind of person I want to be my mentor?'" she added.
She knows that the task in front of her is large, but she knows that change is on the horizon.
"It's like the Titanic. It's going to take a while to turn this big ship, but we're trying to do the right thing. … We're going to have our setbacks, but I think that the will is there in the senior leadership, and we're going to continue to emphasize it. We did the same thing here in the military with racial integration. It wasn't easy at first, but we kept at it, and you can think of numerous examples who've made it to the senior ranks because the organization valued our contributions and not the color of our skin."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article identified Anderson as the highest-ranking black woman in the military. She is the highest-ranking black woman in the Army.
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.